In a letter President Zardari, a bipartisan group of US senators have urged him to protect the country's minorities from misuse of the blasphemy law. -File Photo

WASHINGTON: A bipartisan group of US senators have urged President Asif Ali Zardari to protect Pakistan’s minorities from the misuse of the blasphemy law.

In a letter to the president, the senators expressed their concern over the arrest of a young Christian girl with Down’s syndrome for allegedly burning pages of Muslim holy books.

They noted that Rimsha Masih has been in police custody since her arrest from an Islamabad suburb two and a half weeks ago and could face life in prison or even the death penalty under Pakistani law.

“We also ask you for an end to the unjust imprisonment of Ms Masih and to ensure the protection of Dr Paul Bhatti,” the Prime Minister’s Advisor on Interfaith Harmony, they wrote.

The senators noted that the blasphemy law's application to religious minorities violated their rights and called on the Zardari government to ensure the safety of Christians living in Mehra Jafar and of all religious minorities in Pakistan.

Noting that a “mere allegation” against Rimsha Masih had forced Christians to flee her neighbourhood due to fear of retribution, the senators urged the Pakistani government to ensure their safety.

The letter also demanded an immediate end to violence against Hindus and Ahmadis.

“We write to express our serious concerns about discrimination and violence against religious minorities in Pakistan and the application of Pakistan’s blasphemy law to minority religious communities,” the senator wrote.

They urged the president to take immediate action to “ensure the protection and equitable treatment of all Pakistani citizens, regardless of their religion.”

They welcomed the efforts of Dr Bhatti to aid the girl and her family and avoid violence but said they remained deeply concerned that the law continued to victimize innocent people.

“We urge your government to do more to prevent abuse, as blasphemy allegations have resulted in the lengthy detention of, and violence committed against, Christians, Ahmadis, Hindus and other religious minorities, as well as members of the Muslim majority community,” they wrote.

The senators also expressed concerns over other abuses of religious freedom which, they said, raised further questions about the protection of religious minorities.

“Hundreds of Hindus are fleeing Pakistan due to growing religious intolerance in the country. Among the acts alleged by Hindus leaving the country are harassment, theft, rape, kidnapping and forced conversion,” they said.

The senators also noted that members of the Ahmadi community continued to experience acts of murder, violence and discrimination, as did Shia Muslims.

“While we do not condone the destruction of any religious document or artifact or the defamation of any religion, the application of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws undermines the State’s obligation to protect the rights of all religious groups in Pakistan,” the wrote.

They noted that the law had “repeatedly been used to harass and intimidate members of minority religious groups.”

They reminded the president that “discrimination, violence, and persecution on the basis of religion are a direct affront to the fundamental values of freedom and personal choice your nations subscribed to as signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

The senators said that such violations ran counter to the Pakistani constitution and the vision of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan, when he stated “you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan.”

“We hope that your government will undertake a serious effort to address these specific issues of discrimination against minority religious communities, as well as undertake reforms to ensure that the rights of all in Pakistan are adequately protected,” they wrote.

The letter was signed by three Democrats, Senators Robert Menendez, Ben Cardin and Robert Casey and three Republicans, Senators Mark Kirk, Roy Blunt and Mike Johanns.